The Episode I teaser poster, released November 10, 1999, had a simple elegance to remind casual moviegoers of that galaxy far, far away, with its literal foreshadowing of a young boy's dark fate. The Episode I release poster, conversely, was more of an explosive showcase of the heroes, villains, aliens and droids of the film.
Commissioned to illustrate the Episode I poster was Drew Struzan. No stranger to Star Wars, Struzan had already painted the posters for the Special Edition theatrical re-release of the classic trilogy, dozens of Star Wars novel covers, and art for other licensed Star Wars products over the past two decades.
What follows is a step-by-step tour of the evolution of the poster, from concept, to sketch, to finished artwork.
Part I: The Plan
The traditional illustration of the Episode I poster is indicative of Lucas' strong admiration for the art-form. "I like to move one step away from photo realism to something that's a little grander, a little more glorious, something a little more romantic than what you get with just simple photographs." says Lucas, on The Art of Drew Struzan: The Star Wars Portfolio CD-ROM.
Even though the marketing campaign would be carefully tailored to different parts of the world, the Episode I poster design would retain a unified look globally. Since the poster would represent the film worldwide, there was a lot riding on this one image. Great care was taken to protect this image as the representative icon for the film. To that end, this poster would not be used on spin-off products - novels, storybooks, comic books or toy packaging.
"This poster for Episode I was a first in many ways," says Struzan. "I was told that in the sixty-odd countries in which it screened, the poster went unchanged. The same poster, the same art represented the film in every country."
Part II: Research
The first stage of research for Struzan was a visit to Skywalker Ranch to see a rough cut of the film. "When I got the call to do the job, I was elated," says Struzan, who knew nothing of Episode I's content before the screening. "Imagine getting to sit in a private showing of the most anticipated movie ever, months before the public gets to see it, and to see it in Lucasfilm's screening room."
The version Struzan saw was a work-in-progress, with several scenes missing or in various stages of completion. Many of the complex computer-generated effects were only in skeletal, wire-frame form, or scenes would have a single computer generated character where later there would be hundreds. "It was fascinating to watch the actors working on backgrounds which were just production drawings. It's a good thing I have an imagination!" says Struzan.
The screening gave Struzan an understanding of the characters, dynamics and feel of Episode I. He was also provided with a number of pictorial references, and the initial design developed by Doug Chiang.
"I was surprised," recounts Struzan, "when I later went to a screening of the finished film. Not only were the additions and completions made to the film, but the whole film had been re-edited. I feel like I had been privileged to have seen two different Episode I's."
Beginning with direction from Lucasfilm, Struzan drew a pencil illustration to present the basic composition and characters in the piece.
"It was a derivation of some previous designs done for Star Wars," explains Struzan. "The black frame is from the Special Edition. The big eyes of Darth Maul came from a successful book cover I did for a previous Star Wars adventure, Vision of the Future."
After the drawing was completed, Struzan sent it to Lucasfilm via overnight courier. The illustration was approved in general, but there would be a number of small but important changes before the painting process began.